Autumn in China

Joanne Cachapero
On the inside of her left ankle, Topco Sales' Autumn O'Bryan has a Chinese Kanji tattoo in red and black. The tattooist told her the symbol translates to "strength" in English.

O'Bryan used a recent trip to Topco's Chinese factory to make sure she hadn't been a victim of tattoo quackery.

"They basically told me that it stood for the same concept as strength. So it doesn't mean 'I kill dogs,' or anything like that," O'Bryan laughs. Back from a visit to Topco's facilities

in the city of Shenzhen, O'Bryan returned to company headquarters in Chatsworth, Calif., with tattoo verification, as well as "Fear Factor" descriptions of Chinese fast food and, most importantly, ideas for future product development.

"First and foremost, we went there to visit our factory and our offices, meet with the staff, look at materials, look at controllers, do sketches and designs," she said. "In addition to that, we traveled to other factories just to get a pulse on the industry and what's being created — to see the different items that are out there."

At Topco, company executives are expected to multitask, so official titles rarely describe their various duties. O'Bryan's specialization is in the area of product development.

"For me," she explains, "when you go to China, it's [with a mind toward] developing new products. It's taking an idea or existing product and seeing if we can update the controller or the look. We also do a lot of our clamshells and insert papers there, so we go to meet with artists and clam-makers and mold-makers and things like that."

Topco's sister facility, High Tech Novelties, is located in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, in the Pearl River Delta of mainland China, adjacent to Hong Kong.

In 1978, capitalist-friendly Communist leader Deng Xiaoping declared Shenzhen the first of China's Special Economic Zones.

In the past two decades, foreign business interests have invested more than $30 billion in the region, including the Topco/High Tech Novelties factory, which opened in 2000, and the city's population has grown to more than 10 million. The Shenzhen Stock Exchange was established in 1990, one of two exchanges in mainland China, and the city may soon replace Shanghai as the mainland's largest port.

Economic development in China has been driven by low-cost labor — such as the locals that work at the Topco/High Tech factory — and the government's revolutionary desire to become a global superpower. The rush of entrepreneurial freedom has changed the one-time fishing village of Shenzhen into a boomtown of Western-style commerce, complete with skyscrapers and underground rail service.

Culture Shock
With outside influences flooding China's shores, O'Bryan noted the contrast between East and West and the peculiarities of conducting international business.

"The staff in the China office, they do speak some English," O'Bryan explains. "Sometimes communication is difficult, but we got through it by using a lot of pictures and illustrations and easy words.

"When we went to some of the other factories or we were not within our own offices, we sometimes hired a translator because, at times, it is difficult to even explain the simplest things, as in the color — because they don't know what 'turquoise' is. So you have to pull out Pantone books, color codes and show them."

Marty Tucker, chairman of Topco, lives in China and oversees operations at the facility. His executive multitasking duties sometimes include driving business associates to meetings and appointments.

"You completely take your life into your own hands driving in China," O'Bryan describes, laughing. "To be with another American in a car and the whole time going, 'Can you believe they just did that?'

"There's no driving instruction in China, and it's my understanding that you don't necessarily go through [official] channels to get a license; you can just get a license if you know the right people. So, you have everyone in China who has never been taught to drive.

"If there are three lanes of traffic and you're in the middle lane, the people beside you are in whatever lane. They put on their left-hand directional to go right. They swerve in and out of lanes. They don't stop. Bicyclists and people pass you; they don't cross at cross walks, they go wherever. You're in a vehicle, and next to you, you have the ox and the cart. So it's such a mixture of old and new, yet people driving — that is one fascinating thing in China."

Down Time
Amid the open-air markets and Chinese department stores, Shenzhen is dotted with Starbucks, KFC and even Sam's Club. While the trip was geared toward business, O'Bryan managed to do some shopping.

"It's like going to the largest flea market in the world, and having everyone speak to you in different languages, and grabbing you and touching you, and trying to get you to buy," she says.

One thing missing from mainland China's retail revolution: adult novelty stores. But in Hong Kong, where foreign influence has always been felt, adult products are readily available.

"As far as the adult industry, it's my understanding that in Hong Kong, there's hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of adult stores," O'Bryan says. "They're trying to catch up with Japan as far as developing products and motors and high-tech [adult products], and they're very accepting of it."

A less provocative influence from the West that has become well established in mainland China is fast food. O'Bryan cautions would-be business travelers not to expect French fries or refrigeration, however.

"I'm a Coca-Cola addict, and everywhere we went, [Chinese hosts] knew that I drink 12 Cokes a day. They're very hospitable. You sit around huge tables and they bring in 12 or 15 Coca-Colas and lots and lots of chocolates and sweets," she says. "And they are constantly trying to feed you."

O'Bryan also reports that the Chinese are obsessed with McDonald's — but not quite the same McDonald's we are used to here in the U.S.

"They find McDonald's fascinating," she says. "But instead of French fries, you get cups of corn — kernel corn. Corn and rice. And there are always drinks on the tables. They don't put them in refrigerators, so you drink warm Cokes all day long."

In fact, when ordering fast food in China, it might be best to expect the unexpected, according to O'Bryan.

"We were at one factory, and they kept saying, 'What would you like to eat? We have McDonald's.'

"And we said, 'No, no.' We had enough McDonald's.

"So, they suggested Pizza Hut. And we said, 'Oh, Pizza Hut. Great!'

But even Pizza in China comes with a distinctly Asian twist, one that could turn the stomach of anyone without a taste for tentacles.

"I'm not a big seafood eater — especially in China, because you can see all of the seafood, like the eyes. They don't cut off anything," O'Bryan says. "So, I ate a whole piece of pizza. I got to the last bite and bit into a tentacle. The leg of an octopus.

"I ran out of the office. I got sick. I turned green. That was definitely something that'll stick in my mind, because I couldn't … it was the whole leg of the octopus, and the cheese covered everything except that one tentacle. The entire pizza was seafood, but they told me it was 'vegetable' because of the communication problem.

"It was a seafood pizza. With warm Coke."

Home Sweet Home
Thanks to experiences like that, O'Bryan was glad to be back in the U.S., even if there was a load of work waiting for her. Topco was gearing up for the adult novelty show season, and a busy schedule of domestic travel lay ahead as well as a stack of special projects that required O'Bryan's expertise, such as a new catalog that "bundles" Topco products for distributors to home party retailers.

O'Bryan is busy developing and improving products for Topco's massive catalog, as well exploring the possibilities of new materials, advanced technology and updated merchandising. Just don't expect her to design any hentai-themed tentacle toys anytime soon.